Photography by Darren Hull
Think weight lifting will make you bulky or is better suited to guys' workout styles? Think again. Experts say strength training is super important for women's health—and it can be more effective than cardio when it comes to weight loss.
Standing on a wooden platform on the gym floor at the Vikings Weightlifting Club in Kelowna, B.C., Shirlee Petrat has her white lifting shoes planted firmly beneath her, feet shoulder-width apart. Petrat squats, fixes her gaze and grabs hold of a steel bar with 35 kilograms of weight distributed among two green-and-black discs on either side of the barbell. She takes a deep breath before performing a technical two-stage movement dubbed the "clean and jerk": She hikes the weight from the floor to her shoulders in
one seemingly effortless action, then lifts it overhead, pushing off from her lean, powerful legs.
Petrat, who trains four days a week under a former Olympian, is the provincial record holder in her age and weight divisions and just made her international debut in April, when she lifted for Canada at the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand. She's a champion who has lofty goals—she one day hopes to lift a 50-kilogram snatch (lifting the barbell from the ground right over her head in one fell swoop) and a 63-kilogram clean and jerk for a combined total weight of 113 kilograms. She currently lifts a 39-kilogram snatch and a 50-kilogram clean and jerk, a total weight of 89 kilograms, which is no small feat for someone who has a tiny yet muscular five-foot-one, 110-pound frame.
The most surprising thing about Petrat, though, is that she's not a career weight lifter. The 55-year-old mother of two from Summerland, B.C., took up the exercise and sport just three years ago when she noticed her strength was deteriorating. A certified personal trainer in Pilates and weight training, as well as a former gym owner, she had been out of the exercise game for a full decade, falling off the workout wagon after donating a kidney. At 52, Petrat says she was fit but had lost mobility, her body-fat percentage was higher than it had been in recent years and she couldn't lift a relatively lightweight 15-kilogram bar overhead. "I was weak," she admits. "I would see women lift who were so strong, but they were all younger than me. At first, it was frustrating; I couldn't lift anything. But I was motivated to keep going."
The first six months, she says, were a struggle, but eventually, Petrat started reaping the heaps of health benefits synonymous with weight lifting: Her energy level shot up and she felt stronger—not beefier, but more powerful. "I gained mobility and flexibility in my wrists, ankles and hips, and built bone density I was losing due to age. My balance got better because of the shoulder and core work I was doing." And it wasn't only physical changes she noticed. "Lifting has reversed the aging process—I used to have hot flashes at night; now, I don't. Before I started lifting, I was forgetting things, but because I focus hard when I'm training, my memory and concentration have improved."
Ask any fitness expert and she'll tell you weight lifting and strength or resistance training (terms used to describe any activity that builds muscle mass) aren't just for bodybuilders with pumped-up pecs. But there are still plenty of stereotypes when it comes to women and lifting: Many of us think it's dangerous and bad for the joints; that lifting will make us bulky and masculine; and that once we've built up muscle, it will turn to fat if we stop lifting. It turns out none of this is true. The fact is, like cardio workouts, weight lifting works wonders for the body. "There are an incredible number of health benefits, and they don't just involve being able to lift heavier things," says Megan Murtagh, a certified personal trainer and co-owner of Bounce Personal Training Studio in Ottawa. "Research has demonstrated that strength training and lifting has deep effects on the musculoskeletal system—if a skeleton is not properly supported by muscles, it causes improper articulation of the joints. This can and will cause damage, including wearing of the bones, overworked and injured muscles due to imbalances and, ultimately, arthritis," she says. Weight training "slows bone loss and builds bone density, protecting against osteoporosis. It's been proven to lower chances of diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and back or joint pain. Plus, it raises the body's metabolic rate, which helps with sleep issues, weight loss and healing." To that point, Sandra Jean Mosaad, a certified personal trainer in Vaughan, Ont., adds that weight lifting actually "burns more calories than cardio does, and its effects last longer into the day. Muscle mass burns fat, and lifting really boosts the metabolism."
The benefits don't stop there. A study published in 2012 in Current Sports Medicine Reports found that inactive adults (raise your hand if you have a sedentary desk job and spend too much time on your smartphone or Netflix and chilling) lose three to eight percent of muscle mass each decade; it doesn't sound like much, but losing muscle mass can cause problems with balance, increase your chance of injury and make everyday tasks, like climbing stairs or lifting things, more difficult. But just 10 weeks of strength training may increase lean weight by about 1½ kilograms, boost resting metabolic rate by seven percent and reduce fat weight by nearly two kilograms.
What's more, you don't have to train like Petrat to feel those remarkable gains she's achieved. Researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton recently found that lifting lighter weights and doing more repetitions may have the same effect on muscle building as lifting heavier weights but doing fewer reps. And if that's not enough to convince skeptics, new research using data from the Women's Health Study (which was conducted over the course of 20-plus years by the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School and followed almost 36,000 women aged 45 and older) found that those who did any amount of strength training had a 30 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and a 17 percent lower risk of heart disease compared with those who didn't include weights in their workouts. Numerous studies have also demonstrated a link between lifting and brain health—it can help reduce levels of anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and cognitive function and fight the risk of dementia.
If you've been thinking about lifting, but you're intimidated by the weight room at your gym, you're not alone: These areas have long been seen as testosterone-filled spaces, even though Canadian women have been joining weight-lifting clubs since about the 1950s. The good news is that Mosaad and Murtagh say lifting is gaining in popularity and more women are starting to get into the sport. "Anyone can weight lift—no matter your age or ailment," says Mosaad. "Women in their first trimester of pregnancy or who have just had a baby, or those who have just had surgery should get the green light from their health-care provider before starting, but anyone else can get going with basic exercises and lifts. There's no doubt about it, weight lifting will improve your quality of life."
Petrat, who says she plans to keep lifting and competing for as long as possible, can vouch for that. "Lifting makes me feel empowered. More women are seeing they can do it—they can use it as a sport to compete in or to stay in shape," she says. On her days off from training, Petrat sprints at an indoor track, walks and does yoga to stay relaxed. Thanks to lifting, she's gained the flexibility and strength to make her an avid rock climber, plus she figures she's stronger than her 38-year-old son. She's leaner, sturdier, more solid and more muscular, and she's never felt better. "It takes dedication and commitment, but if you do it, you'll find it makes your life easier. And that's definitely been a bonus."
Just getting started? Here's what you really need.
While most gyms provide a spray bottle and paper towels for exercisers to clean equipment after use, you should have a towel just in case. (Plus, it's great to have on hand when you work up a sweat!)
"It sounds funny, but the worst mistake beginners make is wearing a normal bra at the gym," says Megan Murtagh, a certified personal trainer in Ottawa. "Sports bras absorb sweat, and you'll be much more comfortable moving around in one."
If you're getting serious, you might want to consider purchasing cross-trainers, which have "more lateral support and wider, thinner soles than running shoes," says Murtagh. "They will also help protect the ankle from sprains." If you opt for lifting-specific shoes, they should "have great stability and keep you closer to the ground for a better grip," says Sandra Jean Mosaad, a certified personal trainer in Vaughan, Ont.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Master these five exercises before you begin lifting. Try doing three sets of each.
Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Tighten your inner bum muscles (or external rotators) and suck in your stomach. Lower your body as far as you can by pushing your hips back and bending at the knees. Slowly push yourself back to starting position.
Lie on your back with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips as though you want them to touch the ceiling (your body should be in a straight line from your shoulders to your knees). Squeeze your bum muscles, then slowly lower your body back to the floor. Repeat
10 to 12 times.
Lie on your stomach with your arms outstretched in front of you. Tighten your inner bum muscles and suck in your stomach. With straight hands and arms, raise one arm and the opposite leg, alternating between raising your right arm and left leg, and your left arm and right leg. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
Lie on your stomach. Raise yourself so you’re resting on your forearms and knees. With elbows directly under your shoulders, suck your stomach in; take deep breaths. Hold for as long as you can, then return to starting position. Repeat three times.
Lie facedown on an incline bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing each other. Squeeze your shoulder blades together while moving elbows slightly past your back, then return to starting position. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
No one wants to be that person who doesn’t know gym etiquette. Here are five things you need to know before heading into the weight section.
It’s Ok To Ask For A Spot
Just be sure not to bother someone who’s busy doing circuits, says Megan Murtagh, a certified personal trainer and co-owner of Bounce Personal Training Studio in Ottawa. “If they’re taking rest breaks between sets, that’s an appropriate time to ask. But don’t keep them from their next exercise if they’re going immediately from one to the next.”
Put Your Weights Away
Weight plates, barbells or dumbbells should be put away in their proper locations—not left sitting on mats. “It’s very dangerous to leave things lying around the gym, as they’re easy to trip over. Plus, not cleaning up after yourself makes more work for gym employees—and putting away weights all day long is a tiring job,” says Murtagh.
Wipe Your Equipment Down
You already know that it’s customary to wipe down the bars on the elliptical and the treadmill you use, but you also need to clean sweat off benches, weight machines and barbells.
“The gym is already a noisy place, so don’t drop your weights or dumbbells,” says Murtagh. “Also, dropping them instead of placing them down loosens the ends of the dumbbells, which can end up being dangerous for the next people using them.”
Sharing Is Caring
Monopolizing the gym equipment is a no-no. If you’re working out in a busy location, it’s typical for folks to take turns using the same equipment.
If you don’t have joint issues and have been cleared by your doctor to start lifting, you can hit the weight room. Start with lighter weights you think you can lift with ease, and complete three sets of 10 to 15 reps for each of these beginner lifts.
Sitting on a straight-back bench and sucking in your stomach, lock your shoulders down and in place. Keep the dumbbells and your elbows in line with your ears, and slide your shoulder blades together. Press the weights up into the air in a straight line. Don’t arch your back.
Sitting on a seat and grasping the bar with palms facing you, lean back slightly. Pull the bar toward the middle of your chest, lifting your collarbone and sliding your shoulder blades together and down. Keep your elbows close to your sides. (If your shoulders go forward, not back, or your elbows wing out, you’re using your arms rather than your upper back and you can hurt your neck.)
Dumbbell Bench Presses
Lying on your back on a bench, slide your shoulder blades toward each other, locking your shoulders in place. With straight arms, hold the dumbbells above your shoulders with palms facing your lower body. Slowly lower them toward your mid-chest with your elbows out.
Sitting in a seat with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees in line with your ankles, tighten your bum. Press through the back two-thirds of your feet, keeping your knees from locking. (Don’t let them dip inward; that will put stress on your knees.) Keep your lower back and bum solid in the seat—don’t let them lift.
Sitting on a bench, lean back slightly. Hold the medicine ball straight out in front of your chest. Suck in your stomach. With slow and controlled movements, twist your upper body first to one side and then the other. Your hips and legs shouldn’t move.